LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

On the Aisle



BAM's Marvellous St. Matthew Passion

By Philip Anson / April 8, 2001
On the Aisle

Great works of art, when properly presented, need no interpretation. Yet the simplest concepts -- such as the basic Christian values of truth, honesty, beauty, love, guilt, and pity -- are often the hardest to present convincingly and share publicly. Once in a very rare while, a work of music drama manages to shine a light on the dark places of the soul and lay the heart bare. Jonathan Miller’s semi-staging of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, originally seen in 1997 and now returned to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, does just that. The result is a breathtaking, heart-breaking revelation of the renovating power of art.

Miller has arranged his St. Matthews Passion as a re-enactment of the events surrounding Christ’s death, as they might have been “recollected in tranquility” by his disciples. He serves up the emotionally riveting essence of Bach’s musical masterpiece by presenting it naturally, minimally, shorn of artifice and pretence. In program notes he says he wants this work to seem “as if the performers were celebrating a musical sacrament in a small domestic church somewhere in Ephesus at the end of the second century A.D.” Indeed, clustered together on stage in claustrophobic, “Huis-clos” intimacy, the fresh young cast are totally convincing. The performance takes on the probing urgency of a criminal investigation re-enacting the circumstances surrounding the Crucifixion to figure out how such a dreadful thing could have happened. This passion-play walks us through the familiar events of the prophecies, the last supper, Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, the scourging, the mocking, the crucifixion and the burial, in an effort to cathartically absolve us from the hideous “mystery” of Jesus’s life and death.

BAM’s Harvey Theater is an ideal venue for this experiment, with amphitheatre seating wrapped around the wide open stage. Two mixed choruses a dozen strong (three each of SATB ) are seated facing each other. Their dialectic question-and-answer (“See ye! / Whom? / The Bridegroom, see! / See him! / How? / A lamb is he!”) is surprisingly dramatic. Secondary roles like Pilate, the Priests, and Peter are taken by choristers who, like the protagonists, step into the central arena to speak or sing their pieces at the prompting of the narrator Evangelist.

Miller’s commonsense naturalism works charmingly. The cast of young singers is about the same age as Jesus and his disciples when he died. Everyone wears street clothes and behaves naturally, which is harder than acting. The unease which hangs over the “Jews” and “Christians” reflects the mix of guilt and terror felt by disciples who failed their lord, and Deicides who now see the error of their ways. One of the most chilling moments in the whole production is when the frightened Roman soldiers (chorus) sing “Truly, this was the Son of God who passed away.” The choir manages to convey surprise and fearful repentance in one short phrase. Marvellous!

The use of the late Robert Shaw’s English performing translation ensures the visceral impact of the work, without need for surtitles. Shaw’s version captures the simple poetry of church hymns and sentimental ballads. Sung by the ravishing choir, the chorales are the musical and emotional highlights of the show.

The cast was a well-balanced ensemble. Jesus was sung by the warm-voiced American baritone Andrew Schroeder, sporting a white button down shirt and jeans (“Jesus in Levi’s!,” smirked one wit). Two Canadians made stellar contributions. Countertenor Daniel Taylor, a veteran of the 1997 production, sang a delicious “Have mercy, Lord” (better known as “Erbarme dich”), accompanied by an occasionally wayward baroque violin. Soprano Suzie LeBlanc jumped in for ailing soprano Heidi Grant Murphy. Leblanc sounded suitably plummy and plaintive in her “Grief and Pain” (“Buss und Reu”) and “Weep and Break”(“Blute nur”) arias. Her “For love my Saviour wishes to die” accompanied by flute, prompted a spate of tears throughout the house. British baritone Stephen Varcoe gave stunning performance of “Come, sweet cross” (with excellent gamba accompaniment) and “Purify thyself, my heart” (more tears). Pilate (baritone Stephen Humes) and Judas (David Babinet) were also good. The only vocal problems came from American mezzo Phyllis Pancella, who sounded feeble, and tenor Richard Clement, who was too loud and operatic (Canadian tenor Paul Tessier would have been perfect here).

The whole drama was unified and electrified by the Evangelist of the phenomenal Scottish tenor Paul Agnew, who declaimed his narrative like a cross between a Puritan divine and a slightly mad master of ceremonies. Paul Goodwin led The New York Collegium, an excellent period instrument band with fine violins and characterful oboes, violones, and gambas (they’ll return to accompany the Opera Theater Company of Ireland’s Rodelinda at BAM in May.)

It is hard to describe in words the total effect of this performance. By some ensorcellement, it struck at the very foundations of my conceptions of religion, faith, and humanity. This form of shock therapy is art’s highest purpose. I can give Miller’s experiment no higher praise.

Show continues: April 10, 11, 13, 14, 2001.

Copyright by Philip Anson (Questions or comments?


(c) La Scena Musicale 2000